Samuel John Mullins
June 6, 2013
Mystery Road (Dir: Ivan Sen, Australia) ***/5
“How did he know it was a wild dog?” asks the coroner in the opening scenes of Mystery Road, the brooding outback western by Indigenous writer and director Ivan Sen; the opening night film of the 60th Sydney Film Festival. He’s examining the body of a young aboriginal girl who has been murdered and dumped in a storm water drain next to a blank, empty stretch of highway. The detective, Jay, played impressively by Aaron Pederson, looks at the coroner baffled – there’s a dead girl and you’re worried about what sort of dog was at the scene?
That exchange is the first of many as Jay goes from door to door asking the townsfolk questions, trying to find out why this girl was killed and who did it. And like the coroner, most of the townsfolk would rather focus on other things lest they see the poverty and social breakdown rampant in the Aboriginal community around and among them.
The subtextual commentary on race relations is far more successful than the actual text, as the mystery of the girl’s death proves to be fairly boiler-plate. There are drug runners and addicts and hunters and a few crooked cops and while it all comes together in a thrilling, marvellously staged shootout in the ragged brown hills of extremely rural Queensland, the glacial pace of proceedings deadens the impact once we get there.
Sen shoots the Queensland country like it’s the Wyoming Badlands – the plains are empty, the hills ominous, and it doesn’t take long for you to be nowhere. The quiet moments between when Peaderson is alone in the country; playing target practice with bottles of booze, or watching patiently at a distance while his suspects go about their business, are when Mystery Road is at its best and most cinematic. The first ten minutes or so are almost completely dialogue free and at that point it feels like the movie might turn out to be something special.
But then the central plot kicks in and when Jay has to interact with others the film grinds to a halt. It’s not the fault of Pederson or any of the famous Aussie faces that populate the town, who fill their characters with life and personality; rather it’s a problem in the writing as scene after scene rolls out with Jay talking to one other person, shot at middle distance from the waist up, cutting from one person to the other as they each churn out their piece of the exposition puzzle.
Indeed, part of the issue is that while the sense of place and community is strong, we rarely get a scene with any more than two people. In Sen’s defence, this helps to emphasise Jay’s isolation from the community as a lawman who is part of the system oppressing his people, but as an Aboriginal remains outside of that system himself, but it doesn’t make for truly engaging cinema. Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, and Jack Thompson are all magnetic on the screen and do their best to make it work, but there’s only so much on the page for them to use. I would’ve loved to see Sen take a page out of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller and thrown all the characters together in a room a few times and have them talk freely and naturally rather than the stilted TV like scenes we get.
As it stands, Mystery Road is a competent, intriguing film that has a few interesting and challenging things to say about race relations in Australia. Sen builds strong sense of place and time and it feels like this happens in a real community, but the mystery in the title turns out to not quite enough to carry the deeper things Ivan Sen wants to say.